The Sorceress. Volume 3 of 3
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The house that had been so peaceful was thus full of agitation and disturbance, the household, anxious and alarmed, turning their weapons upon each other, to relieve a little the gnawing of that suspense which they were so unaccustomed to bear. It was true what Bee’s keen and sharply aroused observation had convinced her, that Colonel Kingsward was in correspondence with Miss Lance, and that her letters were very welcome to him, and read with great interest. He threw down the paper after he had made a rush through its contents, and read eagerly the long sheets of paper, upon which the great L, stamped at the head of every page, could be read on the other side of the table. How did that woman know the days he was to be at home, that her letters should always come on those mornings and never at any other time? Bee almost forgot her troubles, those of the family in respect to Charlie, and those which were her very own, in her passionate hatred and distrust of the new correspondent to whom Colonel Kingsward, like his son, had opened his heart.
He was not, naturally, a man given to correspondence. His letters to his wife, in those days which now seemed so distant, had been models of concise writing. His opinions, or rather verdicts, upon things great and small had been conveyed in terse sentences, very much to the purpose; deliverances not of his way of thinking, but of the unalterable dogmas that were to rule the family life; and her replies, though diffuse, were always more or less regulated by her consciousness of the little time there would be given to them, and the necessity of making every explanation as brief as possible – not to worry papa, who had so much to do.
Why it was that he found the long letters, which he read with a certain defiant pride in the presence of his daughters at the breakfast table, so agreeable, it would be difficult to tell. They were very carefully adapted to please him, it is true; and they were what are called clever letters – such letters as clever women write, with a faux air of brilliancy which deceives both the writer and the recipient, making the one feel herself a Sevign? and the other a hero worthy the exercise of such powers. And there was something very novel in this sudden inroad of sentimental romance into an existence never either sentimental or romantic, which had fallen into the familiar calm of family life so long ago with a wife, who though sweet and fair enough to delight any man, had become in reality only the chief of his vassals, following every indication of his will, when not eagerly watching an opportunity of anticipating his wishes. His new friend treated the Colonel in a very different way. She expounded her views of life with all the adroitness of a mind experienced in the treatment of those philosophies which touch the questions of sex, the differences between a man’s and a woman’s view, the sentiment which can be carried into the most simple subjects.There is nothing that can give more entertaining play of argument, or piquancy of intercourse, than this mode of correspondence when cleverly carried out, and Miss Laura Lance was a mistress of all its methods. It was all entirely new to Colonel Kingsward. He was as much enchanted with it as his son had been, and thought the writer as brilliant, as original, as poor Charlie had done, who had no way of knowing better. The Colonel’s head, which generally had been occupied by professional or public matters – by the intrigues of the service or the incompetencies of the Department – now found a much more interesting private subject of thought. He was a man full of anxiety and annoyance at this particular crisis of his career, and his correspondent was by way of sharing his anxiety to the utmost and even blaming herself as the cause of it; yet she contrived to amuse him, to bring a smile, to touch a lighter key, to relieve the tension of his mind from time to time, without ever allowing him to feel that the chief subject of their correspondence was out of her thoughts. He got no relief of this description at home, where the girls’ anxious questions about Charlie, their eagerness to know what had been done, seemed to upbraid him with indifference, as if he were not doing everything that was possible. Miss Lance knew better the dangers that were being run, the real difficulties of the case, than these inexperienced chits of children; but she knew also that a man’s mind requires relief, and that, in point of fact, the Colonel’s health, strength and comfort, were of more importance than many Charlie’s. This was a thing that had to be understood, not said, and the Colonel indeed was as anxious and concerned about Charlie as it was almost possible to be. He did not form dreadful pictures as Bee and Betty did of what the boy might be suffering. The boy deserved to suffer, and this consideration, had he dwelt upon it, would have afforded a certain satisfaction. But what did make him wretched was the fear of any exposure, the mention in public of anything that might injure his son’s career. An opportunity was already dawning of getting him an appointment upon which the Colonel had long kept his eye, and which would be of double importance at present as sending him out of the country and into new scenes. But of what use were all a father’s careful arrangements if they were thus balked by the perversity of the boy?
Things were still in this painful suspense when Miss Lance announced to Colonel Kingsward her arrival in town. She described to him how it was that she was coming.
“My friend is absent with her son till after Easter, and I am understood to be fond of town, and am coming to spend a week or two to see the first of the season, the pictures, &c., as well as a few friends whom I still keep up, the relics of brighter and younger days – this is the reason I give, but you will easily understand, dear Colonel Kingsward, that there is another reason far more near to my heart. Your poor boy! Or may I for once say our poor boy? For you are aware that I have never ceased to upbraid myself for what has happened, and that I shall always bear a mother’s heart to Charlie, dear fellow, to whom, in wishing him nothing but good, I have been so unfortunate as to do such dreadful wrong. Every word you say about your hopes for him, and the great chance which he is so likely to miss, cuts me to the heart. And it has occurred to me that there are some places in which he may have been heard of, to which I could myself go, or where I might take you if you wished, which you would not yourself be likely to know. I wish I had thought of them before. I come up now full of hope that we may hear something and find a reliable clue. I shall be in George Street, Hanover Square, a place which is luckily in the way for everything. Please come and see me. I hope you will not think I am presuming in endeavouring to solve a difficulty for which I am, alas, alas! partially to blame. To assure me of this at least if no more, come, do come to see me to-morrow, Tuesday afternoon. I shall do nothing till I have your approval.”
This letter had an exciting effect upon the Colonel, more than anything he had known for years. He held it before him, yielding himself up to this pleasurable sensation for some minutes after he had read it. The Easter recess had left London empty, and he had been deprived of some of the ordinary social solaces which, though they increased the difficulty of keeping his son’s disappearance a secret, still broke the blank of his suspense and made existence possible. Hard to bear was the point blank shock which he had sometimes received, as when an indiscreet but influential friend suddenly burst upon him, “I don’t see your son’s name in the Oxford lists, Kingsward.” “No,” the Colonel had replied, with a countenance from which all expression had been dismissed, “we thought it better that he should keep to his special studies.” “Quite right, quite right,” answered that great official, for what is a mere degree to F. O.? Even to have such things as this said to him, with the chance of putting in a response, was better than the stagnation, in which a man is so apt to feel that all kinds of whispers are circulating in respect to the one matter which it is his interest to conceal.
And his heart, though it was a middle-aged, and no longer nimble organ given to leaping, jumped up in his breast when he read his letter. There was the possible clue which it was good to hear of – and there was the listener to whom he could tell everything, who took such an entire and flattering share in his anxieties, with whom there was no need to invent excuses, or to conceal anything. Perhaps there were other reasons, too, which he did not put into words. The image which had dazzled him at Oxford rose again before his eyes. It was an image which had already often visited him. One of the handsomest women he had ever seen, and so flattering, so confidential, so deeply impressed by himself, so candid and anxious to blame herself, to place herself in his hands. He went back to town with agreeable instead of painful anticipations. To share one’s cares is always an alleviation – to be able openly to take a friend’s advice. The girls, to whom alone he could be perfectly open on this matter, were such little fools that he had ceased to discuss it with them, if, indeed, he had ever discussed it. And to nobody else could he speak on the subject at all. The opportunity of pouring forth all his speculations and alarms, of hearing the suggestions of another mind – and such a mind as hers – of finding a new clue, was balm to his angry, annoyed and excited spirit. There were other douceurs involved, which were not absent from his thoughts. The pleasure of the woman’s society, who was so flatteringly pleased with his, her mature beauty, which had so much attraction in it, the look of her eyes, which said more than words, the touch – laid upon his for a moment with so much eloquent expression, appeal, sympathy, consolation, provocation – of her beautiful hands. All this was in the Colonel’s mind. He had scarcely known what was the touch of a woman’s hand, at least in this way, during the course of his long, calm domestic life. He had been very fond of his wife, of course, and very tender, as well as he knew how, during her illness, though entirely unconscious of how much he demanded from her even in the course of that illness. But this was utterly different, apart from everything he had ever known. Friendship – that friendship between man and woman which has been the subject of so much sentimental controversy. Somebody whom Miss Lance had quoted to him, some great man in Oxford, had said it was the only real friendship; many others, amongst whom Colonel Kingsward himself had figured when at any moment so ridiculous an argument had crossed his path, denounced it as a mere unfounded fiction to conceal other sentiments. Dolts! It was the Oxford great man who was in the right of it. The only friendship! – with sweetness in it which no man could give, a more entire confidence, a more complete sympathy. He knew that he could say things to Laura – Miss Lance – which he could say to no man, and that a look from her eyes would do more to strengthen him than oceans of kind words from lips which would address him as “old fellow.” He had her image before him all the time as he went up in the train; it went with him into the decorous dulness of his office, and when he left his work an hour earlier than usual his steps were as light as a young man’s. He had not felt so much exhilaration of spirit since – ; but he could scarcely go back to a date on which his bosom’s lord had sat so lightly on his throne. Truth to tell, Colonel Kingsward had fallen on evil days. Even the course of his ordinary existence, when he had gone through life with his pretty wife by his side, dining out constantly, going everywhere, though enjoyable in its way, and with the satisfaction of keeping up to the right mark, had not been exciting. She no doubt told for a great deal in his happiness, but there were no risks, no excitements, and not as much as the smart of an occasional quarrel between them. He had known what to expect of her in every emergency; there was nothing novel to be looked for, no unaccustomed flavour in anything she was likely to do or say. He did not make this comparison consciously, for indeed there was no comparison at all between his late wife (he called her so already in his mind) and Miss Lance – not the slightest comparison! The latter was a far more piquant thing – a friend – and the most delightful friend, surely, that ever man had!
He found her in a little drawing-room on the first floor of what looked very much like an ordinary London lodging-house; but within it had changed its character completely, and had become, though in a different, more subtle way than that of the drawing-room in Oxford, the bower of Laura, a special habitation marked with her very name, like the notepaper on her table. He could not for the first moment avoid a bewildering idea that it was the same room in which he had seen her in Oxford transported thither. There seemed the same pictures on the walls, the same writing-table, or at least one arranged in precisely the same way, the same chairs placed two together for conversation. What a wonderful creature she was, thus to put the stamp of her own being upon everything she touched. Once more he had to wait for a minute or two before she came, but she made no apology for her delay. She came in with her hand extended, with an air of sympathy yet satisfaction at the sight of him which went to Colonel Kingsward’s heart. If she had been sorry only it would have displeased him, as showing a mind occupied wholly with Charlie, but the delicate mingling of pleasure with concern was exactly what the Colonel felt to be most fit.
“I am so glad to see you,” she said. “How kind of you to come so soon, to pay such prompt attention to my wish.”
“Considering that it was my own wish,” he said, “and what I desired most, I should say how good of you to come, but I can’t venture to hope that it was entirely for me.”
“It was very much for you, Colonel Kingsward. You know what blame I take to myself for all that has happened. And I think, perhaps, I may have it in my power to make some inquiries that would not suggest themselves. But we must talk of this after. In the meantime, I can’t but think first of you. What an ordeal for you – what weary work! But what a pull over us you men have! You keep your great spirit and command over yourself through everything, while, whatever little trouble we may have, it shows immediately. Oh,” said Miss Lance, clasping her hands, “a calm strong man is a sight which it elevates one only to see.”
“You give me far too much credit. One is obliged to keep a good face to the world. I don’t approve of people who wash their dirty linen in public.”
“Don’t try to make yourself little with all this commonplace reasoning. You need not explain yourself to me, dear Colonel Kingsward. I flatter myself that I have the gift of understanding, if nothing else.”
“A great many things else,” he said; “and indeed my keeping up in this emergency has been greatly helped by your great friendship and moral support. I don’t know what you have done to this room,” he added, changing the theme quickly, “did you bring it with you? It is not a mere room in London – it is your room. I should have known it among a thousand.”
“What a delightful compliment,” she said. “I am so glad you think so, for it is one of the things I pride myself on. I think I can always make even a lodging-house look a bit like home.”
“It looks like you,” he repeated. “I don’t notice such matters much, but no one could help seeing. And I hope you are to be here for some time, and that if I can be of any use – ”
“Oh! Colonel Kingsward, don’t hold out such flattering hopes. You of use! Of course, to a lone woman in town you would be far more than of use – you would simply be a tower of strength. But I do not come here to make use of you. I come – ”
“You could not give me greater pleasure than by making use of me. I am not going much into society, my house is not open – my girls are too young to take the responsibilities of a season upon themselves; but anything that a single individual can do to be of service – ”
“Your dear girls – how I should like to see them, to be able to take them about a little, to make up to those poor children as far as a stranger could! But I can scarcely hope that you would trust them to me after the trouble I have helped to bring on you all. Dear Colonel Kingsward, your chivalrous offer will make all the difference in my life. If you will give me your arm sometimes, on a rare occasion – ”
“As often as you please – and the oftener the more it will please me,” he cried, in tones full of warmth and eagerness. Miss Lance raised her grateful eyes to him full of unspeakable things. She made no further reply except by one of those light touches upon his arm less than momentary, if that were possible, like the brush of a wing, or an ethereal contact of ideas.
And then she said gravely, “Now about that poor, dear boy; we must find him, oh, we must find him. I have thought of several places where he may have been seen. Do you know that I met him once by chance in town last year? It was at the Academy, where I was with some artist friends. I introduced him to them, and you know there is great freedom among them, and they have a great charm for young men. I think some of them may have seen him. I have put myself in communication with them.”
“I would not for a moment,” said the Colonel, somewhat stiffly, “consent to burden you with inquiries of this kind!”
“You do not think,” she said, sweetly, “that I would do anything, or say anything to compromise him or you?”
The Colonel looked at her with the strangest sudden irritation. “I was not thinking either of him or myself. Why should you receive men, who must be entirely out of your way, for our sakes?”
“Oh,” she said, with a soft laugh, “you are afraid that I may compromise myself.” She rose with an unspoken impulse, which made him rise also, in spite of himself, with a feeling of unutterable downfall, and the sense of being dismissed. “Don’t be afraid for me, Colonel Kingsward, I beg. I shall not compromise anyone.” Then she turned with a sudden illumination of a smile. “Come back and see me to-morrow, and you shall hear what I have found out.”
And he went away humbly, relieved yet mortified, not holding his head as high as when he came, but already longing for to-morrow, when he might come back.
Colonel Kingsward had been flattered, he had been pleased. He had felt himself for a moment one of the exceptional men in whom women find an irresistible attraction, and then he had been put down and dismissed with the calmest decision, with a peremptoriness which nobody in his life had ever used to him. All these sweetnesses, and then to be, as it were, huddled out of doors the moment he said a word which was not satisfactory to that imperial person! He could not get it out of his mind during the evening nor all the night through, during which it occurred to him whenever he woke, as a prevailing thought does. And he had been right, too. To send for men, any kind of men, artists whom she herself described as having so much freedom in their ways, and have interviews with them, was a thing to which he had a good right to object. That is, her friend had a right to object to it – her friend who took the deepest interest in her and all that she was doing. That it was for Charlie’s advantage made really no difference. This gave a beautiful and admirable motive, but then all her motives were beautiful and admirable, and it must be necessary in some cases to defend her against the movements of her own good heart. Evidently she did not sufficiently think of what the world would say, nor, indeed, of what was essentially right; for that a woman of her attractions, still young, living independently in rooms of her own, should receive artists indiscriminately, nay, send for them, admit them to sit perhaps for an hour with her, with no chaperon or companion, was a thing that could not be borne. This annoyance almost drove Charlie out of Colonel Kingsward’s head. He felt that when he went to her next day he must, with all the precautions possible, speak his mind upon this subject. A woman with such attractions, really a young woman, alone; nobody could have more need of guarding against evil tongues. And artists were proverbially an unregulated, free-and-easy race, with long hair and defective linen, not men to be privileged with access under any circumstances to such a woman. Unquestionably he must deliver his soul on that subject for her own sake.
He thought about it all the morning, how to do it best. It relieved his mind about Charlie. Charlie! Charlie was only a young fellow after all, taking his own way, as they all did, never thinking of the anxiety he gave his family. And no doubt he would turn up of his own accord when he was tired of it. That she should depart from the traditions which naturally are the safeguards of ladies for the sake of a silly boy, who took so little trouble about the peace of mind of his family, was monstrous. It was a thing which he could not permit to be.
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